Vermont art, fine food and a million-dollar renovation put Ferrisburgh Artisans Guild on the map
Not too many craft galleries invite you to eat off the merchandise. Or to get cosmic about consuming, pond-side, with the aid of a telescope. But what will sell — or sink — the newly established Ferrisburgh Artisans Guild is much more mundane: traffic. The sound of cars zooming by on Route 7 is music to the ears of the new proprietors — sisters Heidi and Floery Mahoney and their mother and stepfather Debbie and Terry Allen. Their goal is to get enough of those vehicles to pull over, have a look around and maybe buy a painting. Or at least spring for a couple of Vermont-made mugs.
Since the Ferrisburgh Artisans Guild opened last May, a life-sized giraffe has marked the site of the newest and soon-to-be-hippest fine art and crafts “campus” in Vermont. What used to be the old 1810 Farmhouse Restaurant is now a gift shop and gallery — room after sun-filled room of paintings, sculpture and fine crafts. A stroll through the covered bridge leads to the ceramic and woodworking studios and, finally, to the stunning but still shuttered Starry Night Cafe. Imagine Frog Hollow with less clutter, plenty of parking and a side of lamb and boursin ravioli with mint chiffonade.
The tastefully appointed F.A.G. is certainly turning heads within the industry. “This family has the enthusiasm, and they have the location, taste and resources to make this a destination,” Frog Hollow director Bill Brooks says of the new craft complex midway between his nonprofit gallery locations in Burlington and Middlebury. Indeed, capital does not seem like a big concern to the Allens, who spent $337,000 to purchase the 17-acre property and almost twice that fixing it up — so far. Twenty-nine-year-old Heidi, a trained woodworker who serves as the gallery curator, explains cheerfully, “Our vision just keeps getting bigger.”
To many Vermont craftspeople, F.A.G. looks like a dream come true: spacious exhibit areas, state-of-the-art equipment, record low commissions — and not a Holstein T-shirt in sight. Working one day a month is a small price to pay for free retail space on “Money River,” as Ferrisburgh potter Bill Schwaneflugel refers to the busy road. The casual arts center offers folks a chance to see art in action, but without theme park pressure to buy or move along. “We’ve created a scene that suggests art has function and you can use it,” says Floery. That is nowhere more evident than in the charming, handcrafted cafe, soon to be serving food that, she says “will rival Christophe’s” — the French restaurant in nearby Vergennes.
They will be charging less for it, though — because they can afford to. And that economic altruism could have a negative effect. Some are concerned that F.A.G. will adversely affect its nonprofit competitors — and wonder if the family is really in it for the long haul. Read: winter. “They could drive Frog Hollow and the Shelburne Craft School out of business, then get disinterested and move to the Caribbean,” speculates one craftsperson who asked not to be identified. “Or it could turn into a great thing.”
It was a combination of money and family dynamics that hatched the idea for the Ferrisburgh Artisans Guild — originally conceived as a cooperative studio and gallery that would give Deb, an amateur potter, and her daughter Heidi space to work. Heidi got interested in woodworking while assisting in the construction of her parents’ home in Ferrisburgh. When they married five years ago, her mother and stepfather tried to find an old house to fix up. Discouraged by what they saw, the couple decided to build one with recycled materials that looked 200 years old.
Don Devaney was the foreman on the project, and still an employee with the Bristol-based renovators Conner & Buck Construction. When he got wind of his clients’ larger “vision,” he broke away from the firm to offer his services as property manager. He has supervised all the restoration work at F.A.G. and is earning ownership in the process. “We knew it was going to be a big project, and that there would be a lot of money involved,” Deb says of the “scary” moment when she realized this project would “change their lives forever.” Practical and results-oriented, “Don came at a key time.”
So did American Business Information, the company that bought Allen’s Winooski-based County Data Corporation in 1995. The Vermont company used municipal contacts to compile and update a list of new businesses in the United States — data that became extremely valuable to ABI. When he is not hearing about new plans for the property, or writing checks for them, Allen is working on a book about his experiences in the business world.
The working title — Confessions of a Chronic Entrepreneur — may shed some light on his investment interest in Spade Farm, which had been vacant for several years before it came up at auction last summer. The Allens expected to get the property cheap — “the low two’s would have been lovely,” Deb recalls. But the bidding got aggressive when a couple of chainsaw carvers down the road upped the ante. The price was rising by $5000 increments, when Deb tried to convince her husband to let it go. Allen kept on bidding.
“Terry hates to lose at anything — that was it,” his wife explains. “And he knew five or 10 years down the road this property is going to be worth a fortune.” The Allens have already made significant improvements to the “campus,” which includes a 13-room farmhouse, two barns and a haphazard collection of low-lying buildings just down the road from tourist-friendly Dakin Farm. Rumor has it Sam Spade bought the covered bridge in hopes of selling it to Electra Webb. But when she heard his price, she turned him down — a harsh first lesson in craft commerce on Route 7. The historic bridge has been there ever since.
Successors to Spade continued to collect old things — historic buildings, mostly. The woodworking studio that Heidi shares with master craftsman Dale Helms is the former Ferrisburgh Train Depot. The cafe was an old cider mill before it was transformed into an intimate eatery that will serve California cuisine on F.A.G. inventory, including hand-blown glassware by Harry Bessette. Although Terry Allen was dead-set against having a restaurant on the premises, he gave in when Floery offered to run it. She brought the magnificent wooden bar all the way from Chicago and Chef Michel Mahe from food-savvy San Francisco.
Mahe marvels, “It’s the first place I worked where you ask for something creative, and you get it the next day.”
Sitting on the back patio, with a view of the newly dug, spring-fed pond, the family reminisces about the renovations to date with a lightheartedness reserved for those unconcerned with six-figure shortfalls. “I thought it was going to be $50,000 to fix up the house, but that was way off,” Deb says with a chuckle. Devaney estimates it cost about $200,000 to overhaul the farmhouse from top to bottom. With new sealed floors, the basement is now dry enough to store paintings.
But most of the art works are on the walls upstairs. Just off the gift shop, the first floor is reserved for shows that change monthly. Recently, the wild collage art of Anna Fugaro was juxtaposed with classic clay vessels by Elizabeth Roman. Heidi says the curatorial goal is to “blur the line between art and craft” while offering “something for every taste.” Eclectic it is.
The permanent collection on the second floor is even more so, with a piece or two from every member voted into the guild by a five-member jury. There are plenty of pretty pictures up there — even an aerial photo of the Champlain Valley. But the Woody Jackson painting on the way up the stairs has a Southwestern theme: It’s a Spanish mission church entitled “San Isidero.” The only cows around are beef cattle that look like they’re on the way to the slaughterhouse — “Tagged,” by Deanna Shapiro, is not exactly Ben & Jerry’s material.
There are more artistic surprises, along with breathtaking wooden coffee tables, pottery, hooked rugs and sculpture. A pair of paintings depicting the Grand Union — day and night views — by Jill Madden. Robert Brunelle’s painting of a bloated black woman in a waiting room, titled “Ob Gyn.” A large abstraction by Cami Davis, “Kairos.” Even the loo is full of art.
Despite the abundance, and diversity, of art in the Ferrisburgh farmhouse, potter Bob Green feels his raku vessels are better displayed here than in the more crowded galleries run by Frog Hollow. “What they have done so far looks great,” he says, noting he has sold a few small things through F.A.G. this summer. “I just hope they can continue it in the dim of winter. I don’t know how deep the well runs with them.”
Helping high-end artisans like Green is the primary goal of F.A.G., and to do so the gallery takes only a 30 percent commission on sales — 15 if the craftsperson will work on the premises one day a month. Most commercial galleries charge 40 or 50 percent to represent an artist, and don’t always have the know-how to sell the stuff, according to Green.
That is why so many artisans opt to sell through craft shows — like the Vermont ones organized by Charlie Dooley — which are designed to make craft shopping an “event” and bring the isolated artist face-to-face with the customer. But Dooley concedes the festival format is not for everyone. After paying an entry fee, “there is the expense of hotels, restaurants and, perhaps worst of all, time out of the studio,” he explains. Other factors affect the overall success of the show as well, including weather, competing events and the occasional E. coli outbreak.
Anything can happen, in other words. Dooley’s time-tested recommendation to local artisans is: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
F.A.G. is a brand new basket — and more than 100 member artists and craftspeople have already eagerly turned over their precious ova. Many of them, like Green, already sell through Frog Hollow. As a retail outlet, Ferrisburgh looks too good to pass up. Optimists like Heidi claim it’s a good thing for everyone. She says F.A.G. has “been talking all along to Frog Hollow” and seeks only “synergistic” dealings with the state craft center while it pursues things Brooks can’t or won’t do, including the exhibition of fine art.
But some of F.A.G.’s big plans are certain to conflict with those of the state’s premiere craft brokers. As Schwaneflugel puts it, “I’m not sure what the vision is, but it’s a huge one.” Classes and lectures are already scheduled, some in cooperation with Frog Hollow. And the resident artists just keep coming. Recently, a blacksmith from Williston picked up his entire studio and plunked it down on the Ferrisburgh campus, where no one is going to complain about a little artisanal industry. A group of boatbuilders is interested in taking over one of the two barns.
The more the merrier — and the more interactive. The enterprising owners of F.A.G. want to get the co-op members involved, working in front of the public to provide a “total experience” that combines shopping, education and entertainment. Schwaneflugel, whose Red Earth pottery studio is less than a mile away, says he plans to skateboard over to do demonstrations. To sweeten the deal, Deb has offered him use of a soda-fired kiln that will soon be constructed. This factory-tour approach, Dooley speculates, “is really what is going to make it different from Frog Hollow.”
On that front, Brooks may have some reason to be worried. As stunning as it is, the high-rent Church Street gallery in Burlington does not have the space to do big shows or demonstrations. Nor does it operate in the black until December, he says. Raising money for things like new buildings and equipment is a major struggle. Frog Hollow just launched a fundraising campaign to establish a craft education center in the basement of Memorial Auditorium, doubling the number of students it serves statewide. “It takes a long while for an organization like this to break even, let alone be profitable,” he warns.
The larger threat to craft sellers everywhere may be demographic. A longtime observer of the market, Dooley says handmade goods are not as popular as they once were. Aging baby boomers — once great supporters of politically correct craft work — have all the mugs, quilts and wind chimes they need, he notes. Gen-Xers are more inclined to page through the Pottery Barn catalogue, or buy their dishes online. “The average age of the craft-fair consumer has definitely gotten older,” Dooley says.
Furthermore, crafts customers are buying either very expensive items, like $10,000 beds, or notecards selling for two or three bucks a piece. “I have seen erosion in the middle, like 25 to 50 dollar items,” Dooley says, adding his Craftproducers company, which has a show next weekend in Stowe, is consciously moving its merchandise in the high-end direction. “The artists who are successful are the ones with well-defined products in appropriate price ranges.”
F.A.G. could definitely learn a lesson from Simon Pearce — the number-two attraction in Vermont lures 350,000 visitors a year with affordable hand-blown glass. They could also pick up a few tips from Dakin Farm, right down the street, experts at parting tourists and their money for Vermont-made products. But the first order of business is to get passing motorists to hit the brakes. As Dooley suggests, tourists come to Vermont expecting to find antiques and maple products, but not a thriving community of artists.
It may take more asphalt. Or big flags proclaiming “art,” “gifts,” “booze” to meet F.A.G.’s revenue goal of $1500 a day. Dooley recommends commissioning an eye-popping, must-stop piece to take the place of the copper giraffe, which is heading down to Tennessee at the end of the month. The tasteful signs in place don’t cut it, as evidenced by an elderly couple who pulled over in their Chevy van, snapped a picture of the covered bridge, and steered back onto the highway.
Like others hurtling past on Route 7, they still don’t know what they’re missing.